15 min read

Team Titans Season 2, Episode 5 - Lennart von Niebelschütz

On this episode of Team Titans, Ryan and ScriptRunner Marketing Manager Jess Thompson interview Payback’s Lennart von Niebelschütz about empowering people, cross-functional collaboration, and his Context Cube model of supporting large teams. Payback's case study can be found here.

Transcript

Ryan Spilken:

Hello, welcome to Adaptivist Live: Team Titans. These are the stories of people with unique perspectives on work itself, how they define or perhaps break processes, build software, and lead teams. I'm your host Ryan Spilken and joining me today as co-host is senior marketing manager for ScriptRunner for Jira, Jess Thompson. Jess, thank you so much for joining us today.

Jess Thompson:

This is the most fun I have had all week, and it's only Monday.

Ryan Spilken:

I don't know if that's good or not, but I'll take it as a compliment. Jess does some excellent work on the ScriptRunner for Jira line and we get to work together quite a bit on some Champion Hours and other things. So it's a real pleasure getting you in front of the microphone to speak with our guest today, who is joining us from PAYBACK, and that is Lennart von Niebelschütz. Lennart, thank you so much for joining us on Team Titans.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Yeah, thank you for having me.

Ryan Spilken:

So Lennart, your story is super interesting. You handle the collaboration tools for PAYBACK, who is a large German... For our American listeners or perhaps UK listeners PAYBACK's like, analogous to Groupon, would you say?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Yeah, so what we do is we have a loyalty partner program, so people can go to the grocery and shop there, get some loyalty points, get their rewards and are just rewarded for every shopping experience they have.

Ryan Spilken:

Oh, all right. PAYBACK grew quickly. But your team has a bit of an interesting story. So what brought you to your current role?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

So about my current role. Should I start with where I came from before?

Ryan Spilken:

Tell us the story, sir.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Yes. So I have always been good at the computer, starting with about I think six years old had my own computer, and was starting to dive into it and yeah. But after school, I left it with some pretty bad school reports and I had the chance in Vispardon at the company called Seibert Media, the managing director there, he said, "Okay, just let's forget about your school reports for now. Just tell me what you're able to do and show me." And I showed him and he said, "Okay, let's just have your apprenticeship here. And you're going to go in this topic." And for me it was of course quite good because this was the thing that I always wanted. And he gave me just very good headstart in there.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

And afterwards, or being there, Seibert Media is a testing platinum partner as well. And in there, I had the chance to pretty soon also consult companies and going to workshops. And still being in my apprenticeship, I really had the chance to travel abroad and to really just get known to the companies and to their needs. And in 2017, after my apprenticeship, two years after my apprenticeship has ended, I have been caught by a recruiter that asked me if I would like to do this for a company.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

And I said yes, because I have always been in projects and I really help people to start the systems. To start their experience. And I really got some good feedback on this, but I, most of the times, I weren't able to have this on the long-term view. I've been there, I got some good feedback and yeah, this is running quite fine. And this was my chance in 2017, then, to really have this on the long-term. To support a company, not only for one day, but I said, "Okay, let's see how I can max this out."

Ryan Spilken:

Nice. So that got you to where you are now, but how many users do you support at PAYBACK?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Yeah. So at first we started with, the systems were only there for developers and yeah, I think it's... I don't really know the number, but of course, yeah, it was a lower number. And we're now, I think it's about 200, 300 users, something like this. And we now grew 1000 users in Bitbucket and 2000 users license in Confluence, same for Jira, for ITSM. For the Jira service management we have 500 users and 250 agents.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

And yeah, so it all grew because it could. Because we saw the chance to not only support the development sections at PAYBACK, but also to reach out to the broader organization. And my thing is always, I really like to see that people are benefiting, benefiting from the stuff that we're doing. Yeah. And those, so I said, "Okay, let's just scale this into the company."

Jess Thompson:

So in terms of supporting, obviously all of these users and these very varied requirements, which we'll get into in a little bit, is this just you, do you have a team? Could you talk about that a little bit?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Yes. Yes, of course. So on one side, it's me, I got into IT, and now I'm a specialist for automation and collaboration management. And yeah, I'm there as a full-time employee, but it's not only me. I also have two very, yeah, good, very technically skilled. And also just, we have one of two colleagues that are there part-time. So one of them is there 16 hours a week and the other is 32 hours a week. So we have three. Because I always say, it's not about the hours that you're in there. It's about the value that you be in there.

Jess Thompson:

It's kind of like “Two and a Half Men” then.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Yes.

Ryan Spilken:

Or “Three Men And A Baby;” I'm not sure. So that is a small amount of hours to support a whole lot of people. How do you make that work?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

So mainly what... You're definitely right. It's little for what we deliver or what we see to deliver. And how we do this is first when I got there, I said, "Okay, we have to scale not only the system into the company, but we as the tiny thing that we are, we have to scale our efforts as well." So I searched for people that take part ownership and or applications as well. And they are serving as our ambassadors. And this is really helpful because then we can tell them how the system works, get them the deeper knowledge. At least from what we are able to do while things work at the architecture level, not in too deep, but to get a basic understanding for them. And they then talk to our internal customers and gather the requirements and then discuss with us. So we are scaling on the organization the level here as well. And this is how we get into this, how we approach this.

Jess Thompson:

This kind of brings us quite neatly onto the idea of Context Cubes. Would you like to tell us about those?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Yes. So basically I was confronted and at firsthand with projects that on one side, I really tried to have, let's say one workflow for every project. And this didn't really work. From a technical perspective, yeah, this could have been worked, but not for the people that are really working with the system. And I always say that if the people can work as they want to, then we all win. And what I do there is to say, I have Context Cubes. I call them Context Cubes because basically they are either projects, in Bitbucket projects, in Jira or spaces in Confluence. And what we do there is we put our framework on them. And with this framework, we have permissions, we have conventions in these permissions. And first thing they will always the discussion about, "Okay, we need this role, this role, this permission, and this permission and this and this and this."

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

And I said, "Okay, how could we cut this on a really, really basic level?" And then we found that we were able to cut this into admin, read, write and read. So this is from the permission perspective. This is one part of the context cube. And another thing that definitely now is a part of it is the scripts that come with ScriptRunner, or we deliver them in ScriptRunner. We have one project is ATL and Bitbucket. And in there we have some our own script library with some functions and so on. And every context cube has their own folder structure. And then this folder structure, people can on the one side directly see what's going on in there. And on the other side, others that want to learn from it, how they are doing their stuff can take out ideas from this as well.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Now of course they are documented in Inline and so on. And in markdowns. This is part of it. And the other, at the most important part from my perspective is, as always from my perspective, people are the most important part here. The context cube owners. So first we had people that said, okay, they are assigned some tasks, they're assigned to a project admin role, but they didn't really feel the ownership of it. "Yeah, I have to do this. Maybe I have to do some components in here. I have to manage the versions, but it's not... I don't really know. Maybe you can talk to other people, that maybe we can help you together." But I said, "Okay, no, what I really want to do is that you feel the ownership. How can we do this in a way that you don't feel a special burden or something like this, but you feel the benefit from the ownership."

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

And the benefit from the ownership comes with the freedom, the freedom of design, the freedom of configuration, the freedom of permission granting. Our Context cube owners, they themself can manage their permissions in a self service portal, which my team leads develop. And with this, yeah, they are able to manage permissions. And they are able to request configurations. So when their internal customers of the people that are working with this context cube, if they want special configurations, they have to approach them.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

It's not enough that they have to approach them, and then they talk to us. And this gives them the power to say, "Okay, this is mine. This is my context cube. And you can have fun with me in here. We can work in here." And we designed this to what really fits our need. And I think back then the name came from the Rubik's cube, because I said, "This is a common framework, but with a Rubik's cube, you can have your own pattern." And this is exactly what you hear as well.

Ryan Spilken:

I have to wonder Lennart, are the Context Cubes fairly analogous to the company's overall structure? Would you say that you have context cube owners in every major business unit that come to you as those owners of the software?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

For us, it's not the organizational departments. More it's about the people that are working together. And people that are working together for us, so we learn from them from how the people like to work, how they need to work. And then they can have their own context cube. And for me personally, and for us as a team, it doesn't matter too much how it's structured on an organizational level. But it's more on the value, what the people need. If they say, "Okay, now we don't need this context cube anymore. We can merge them together." Fine. From our perspective, as soon as you max out the value from working with these systems. Is this answering your question?

Ryan Spilken:

Yeah. Absolutely. I think it's really cool that the context cube is designed to be cross-functional. But that means that you're going to have some people solving problems that other people are having. How do you end up connecting those solutions from one context cube across to another?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Yes. So what we do is on the one side, on the technical side, we have this, I'd say this project, what we have in Bit Bucket, where we, for every application, there's a repository, we pull as soon as there's a change. So as soon as we deliver new scripts in there, we pull them to the server and from there, they are accessed by ScriptRunner. So as soon as there is a new commit, ScriptRunner can work with those changes. And in the script library, we have a restructure and people can have a look into it.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

What's more important I think is that, yeah, of course we have our blog posts as well. And the blog posts give notifications and our main channel, but we encourage the people to help each other and to get connected to each other. So every time people approach me or approach our colleagues, they say, "Oh, thank you very much for helping me." And we say, "Okay, you don't really have to thank us. What you can do instead is help your next." So we encouraged the people, we don't have strict enforcements, let's say to meet once a week, we meet once a week and have our discussions. They can do this. If they feel that it's helping them. And we advise them to do something like this, but we just more encourage them and tell them they are working with each other.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

These Context Cubes are next to you. And for example, the owner of this context cube has done this. The owner of this context cube has done this. And get together, talk about this, and if you need our help, definitely we'll be there. I will join your discussion. And as much as you can do yourself, feel free, of course, to do so. And then we'll talk about the technical details. So this is how we get them together. We basically encourage them. And luckily the people are really willing to help each other and to get connected to each other.

Jess Thompson:

So basically what you've almost ended up creating is like a micro-community of context cube owners, and trying to encourage them to speak to each other and see what's possible, what's been done before. Like, that's a very interesting approach.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

I said that when I have seen this instance at first, what came to my mind is this could be a complex adaptive system. Or at least it was a complex system. Now we could say, "Okay, let's do a complex adaptive system. Nowadays it's a adaptive modular system. So we, with the framework we put on this, we remove much of the complexity that was in there. And with the encouragement of people that they... I think they really had to see that they are able to do something that they don't have to wait for someone to get into this, but they can really do something about it. And this helped to get them together and to, from not really a revolution, but some kind of... Yeah, it's really good to see what people are able to do if you tell them that you trust them.

Jess Thompson:

And in terms of, you mentioned giving people kind of access to your own internal script library, how does that process work? It's obviously something that's of big professional interest to me as a ScriptRunner background?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

None of this answers the question I hope. So at first we had some extensions there. We're doing automation stuff in our system. Most of them were mostly graphically. I said, "Okay, we can't really give each and everyone access to the graphical user interface admin side, but what we can do instead is we can place our scripts there. And then we can source them out into a script route and into repositories. And from there, some people at least already know how to read Groovy scripts and how to write them as well. People are already also modifying our scripts, and giving us pull requests that we can then approve. And then with this they see how the system works. They get a better understanding of stuff. And if sometimes of course we have some graphical user interface, some mix up between graphical user interface and our scripts. Because sometimes you have to do something like this to, for example, have pre-built email stuff.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

But for this, we have our read me markdowns and in there we write how this is configured, and then they can get an understanding on this as well. And we tell or internal customers or the developers that are working with us. "This is our project. You can get the permissions in here." And of course you can also create as many branches as you want, because we restricted the master branch and the staging branch and the dev branch. And aside from this, we don't really care what the people are doing. They can feel free to do the stuff that they want to. And to be honest, they, yeah, sometimes they create branches if they really have some good feature requests for us or some features that they want to see in there. Sometimes we have to work with them, modify the stuff. But we get the people to have the freedom to create boundaries and so on. And they just use it as we hope to.

Ryan Spilken:

Lennart, the thing that really strikes me is that you seek mainly to empower people. And on one hand that's, you know, to be a little cheeky, that's like a great way of putting off work for yourself, you know? I'm teasing of course, but what is it that drives you to build up your users and to give them so much? What drives your thinking behind that?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

I've seen that I got empowered by the managing director of the company that first hired me in 2012, back in 2012. And with this, I got into a journey that yeah, in the end got me here and got me into a job that I really, really love. And so with this, and this continued at PAYBACK where my team did now said, "Okay, what do you need? How can I empower you?" And this, I said, okay, for me, it worked this fine to have people that believed in me that I said, okay, I believe in people now. I will try my best to just empower them and to see what comes out of this. Because together you can form something that you wouldn't ever be able to do yourself. And this is really amazing to see.

Jess Thompson:

I really like that.

Ryan Spilken:

Nice. Do you find that spilling out into your personal life as well?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Yes. So I have some hobbies and in there when I... So my specialty works, I would say is I really like to dive deep into topics. And sometimes I have topics where I really I'm thinking to where I really dive deep into, and then I support people on this. And what's interesting is I support people on this to get a better understanding on this, to empower people with this stuff. And on the other side, this gets reflected, definitely. I myself, I'm really bad at... I don't know how to say this. At and doing stuff in Zimmerei (Carpentry), hammer and nail and so on with these kinds of stuff. I'm really bad at this. But the people that I support in other topics that they really like to support me on this, and with this, I got empowered on this. In the last years, what I always try to form is some circles of empowering. And to see that people that are starting to empower the others. Yeah. This one thing I can't really describe how much I really like to see this.

Ryan Spilken:

Wonderful.

Jess Thompson:

It's like a very beautiful thing to have set in motion.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

This is for me, it's really an emotional thing too. Yeah.

Jess Thompson:

So what is the next project that you are excited about?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

My next project is... My last project was on replacing our ITSM solution with... So something that was pretty static. Something that nobody liked to work with, with something that is so dynamic that we can just enhance it always and to make it better all the time. And I've been asked, when is this done? And I said, "Yeah, so you can now consider this done, right?" "Yeah, yeah. I know. I consider this done." And I said, "Okay, we are now at about 95%." And we now get the next requirements from people because we learn how the people like to work with the system. And then we fall back to 85%, and then we get back to 100%.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Maybe we won't ever reach the 100%, but the 95, 96, 97. And then we are falling back to 85 because we learned that people are... Yeah. Need stuff in another way. And really my big project, my big goal I'd rather say, is the three pillars of expansion, adaption and optimization. So, and this is as well a circle. I started the circle and I really loved that circle going on and on and on. Expansion, adaption, optimization all the time. And I really love it.

Ryan Spilken:

Yeah. It just lines up perfectly with the sort of agile philosophy without using too much, without getting too caught up in itself. So iterations, right. Just revisiting. It's not done. It's working.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Yes. Exactly.

Jess Thompson:

If, you know, obviously all of this started with kind of bottle-necking of delivery. If you had someone approach you and say, "Look, I'm having this real headache with delivery bottleneck," what would be the first thing that you would suggest they do?

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

So the first thing that I suggest people to do is to involve other people. To get them better known to the... Not really to the insides, but to how the system works. And to empower them, to give them an understanding of what the systems are able to do. And I think the biggest part really of the time that you need to form the system of your needs is the discussion with your internal customers. And you don't have to do all the stuff yourself. You can empower other people to gather the requirements for you.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

And then you can work with them on the low hanging fruits first. So what serves you most. You see, I have 40 hours a week, and now it's up to you to decide what gets the biggest, the highest priority. And this is aligned with the other people as well. And I will have a transparency of what I do. And you, it's up to you to decide what gets priority. For me, the experience is the people will just understand and help you.

Jess Thompson:

If anyone's interested in reading more about the PAYBACK approach to this, we do have a case study on the website. So we'll drop a link for that in the transcript of the podcast.

Ryan Spilken:

Well, Jess Thompson, thank you so much for joining me today as co-host and Lennart Von Niebelschutz, thank you so much. The best of luck to all of your efforts at PAYBACK and whatever you choose to do in your future.

Lennart von Niebelschütz:

Thank you for having me.

Jess Thompson:

Thanks Lennart.

Ryan Spilken:

Thank you so much for joining us on Team Titans today

Ryan Spilken:

And listeners, thank you for listening so much. Be sure to connect with us on social at Adaptavist and let us know what you think of the show. And that's it for this episode of Team Titans. Thanks everyone.